Some years ago, John Crowley published "Missolonghi 1824," a short story about the poet Lord Byron's last days in Greece, when he lay dying of fever, attended only by a servant boy. The story draws a thin line between Byron's vivid dream-state and his pitiful reality, ending on a question in the poet's own mind (perhaps his very last thought?) about what had really happened and what he had only dreamed.
This brief tale not only anticipates Crowley's preoccupation with Byron in his daring new novel; it also distills an abiding theme of this celebrated author—the greatest fantasist of our time—into its essence: there are multiple realities, and the sum of them is only just out of reach, like a dream that can be recaptured.
Lord Byron wrote no novel; this we know as fact. It would have been enough for any ordinary writer of fantasy to present an ingeniously fabricated piece of Byronic fiction, along with a credible foundation for its existence. But for Crowley, the presence of Lord Byron's novel within his own Lord Byron's Novel acts as but the fulcrum for all the various, radiating wonders of the book.
Enfolded within the discovery of the novel is the history of Byron's daughter Ada—who, as a matter of fact, invented the first computer program in 1842. It is Crowley's "piece of impertinence" (as he impishly calls it in his postscript) to imagine that Ada preserved her father's unknown prose fiction in numerical code, in order to conceal it from her vengeful mother.
Enfolded further into Ada's story is that of Alexandra Novak, the feminist scholar who stumbles upon Byron's encoded novel in her research on his brilliant scientist daughter. Alex was forcibly estranged from her rake of a father, just as Ada was from hers. It is Alex's father who strikes just the right note for us to rediscover Byron's greatness in our own time (and this is surely Crowley's primary objective): nil alienum humani. Nothing that is human should be alien to us. It is a tall order. Like so much else we can only imagine, John Crowley places it within our reach. Copyright 2005 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2005 April #1
A lost novel by Lord Byron-yes, that Lord Byron-surfaces in present-day London and unfolds here, in a multilayered meditation on the nature of the self and of father-daughter relationships, all bound up in a ripping good story.Alexandra "Smith" Novak had little interest in Lord Byron when she began researching his estranged daughter, Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, for strongwomanstory.org, a Web site about significant women in history. However, while going through Ada's papers, acquired from a mysterious character in a shady interaction, Smith comes across a manuscript consisting entirely of tables of numbers; with the help of her mathematician girlfriend and her own estranged father, the entire thing is translated back into its original form: a roman Ã clef of Byron's own life-they think. There's no way of being certain that Byron wrote the thing, but the theory is that Ada, a mathematician and arguably author of the first computer program (for her friend Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine), coded the entirety of her father's novel before burning it at her mother's behest. Crowley, known for spinning complex fantasies (Novelties and Souvenirs, 2004, etc.), here goes himself one better and inhabits the persona of another writer (himself a pioneer of the gothic and romantic) to create the heart of the work. Byron writes of Ali, a lost Albanian son of a dissipated Scottish nobleman. Ali is suddenly plucked up from his country and dumped into a foreign world, one of the English noble classes, and begins his peregrinations through wars, murders, dark and stormy nights-all swirled together in an ornate, darkly humorous tale. These episodes are sandwiched between notes made by Byron's daughter on the text and lengthy e-mail correspondence between Smith, Lee, Thea and Smith's mother, all about the progress of the translation and their views of Ada and Byron almost 200 years later.Complex and satisfying, pleasurably dizzying in its layers and self-references, and addictively readable. Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 June #1
Crowley's (Daemonomania) magnificent new novel is multilayered and convoluted, a story within a story within a story that spans three centuries. It opens with the discovery of a fictitious and somewhat biographical manuscript by Lord Byron. The manuscript itself is a kick, complete with pashas and privateers, fortunes and loves won and lost, sexual ambiguity, and locations spanning from Albania to the Scottish Highlands, all written in prose as flowery as Byron's poetry. This manuscript then mysteriously falls into the hands of Byron's daughter, Ada, known today as one of the first mathematicians to understand the possibilities of computer programming. She encodes the manuscript and adds long, often rambling annotations, pondering her own life as well as her father's. Finally, the reader sees Byron's novel and Ada's notes through the eyes of Alexandra, a 21st-century computer wiz who decodes the notes and ponders her own relationship with her distant father. This book will appeal to sophisticated readers and is highly recommended for medium and large public libraries.-Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2005 April #3
On a stormy night at Lord Byron's Swiss villa, Mary Shelley challenged her host, her husband and herself to write a ghost story. Mary's, of course, became Frankenstein. Byron supposedly soon gave up his-but, Crowley asks, what if he didn't? The result is this brilliant gothic novel of manners enclosed in two frames. In one, Byron's manuscript comes into the hands of Ada, his daughter by his estranged wife. Ada, in reality, became famous as a proto-cyberneticist, having collaborated on mathematician Charles Babbage's "difference engine." In Crowley's novel, Ada ciphers Byron's work into a kind of code in order to keep it from her mother. The second frame consists of the contemporary discovery of Ada's notes on Byron's story by Alexandra Novak, who's researching Ada for a Web site dedicated to the history of women in science. Alex is, a little too conveniently (this novel's one structural flaw), the estranged daughter of a Byron scholar and filmmaker; her interest in Ada dovetails with her father's interest in Byron, and she's fascinated by the notes and the code both. By applying Byron's scintillating epistolary style to the novel he should have written, Crowley creates a pseudo-Byronic masterpiece. The plot follows Ali, the bastard son of Lord "Satan" Sane and an unfortunate minor wife of a minor Albanian "Bey." Sane finds and takes the boy, aged 12, back to Regency England. Ali's life is filled with gothic events, from the murder of his father (of which he is accused) to his escape from England with the help of a "zombi," the fortuitous and critical aid he gives the English army at the Battle of Salamanca and his love affair with a married woman. The myth of Byron's lost papers has a catalyzing effect on American literary genius, giving us James's Aspern Papers and now Crowley's best novel. Agent, Ralph Vicinanza. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.